When construction worker Rasel J. M. dropped a drill on his leg and fell off a ladder in January, he was not taken to hospital. Instead, the Bangladeshi was told to stay in his hostel and take painkillers. Two days later, his employer confiscated his work permit and told him to go home.
It dawned on him that he could be working illegally as his permit stated he was working for his employer but in reality, he had been working for another company. "In that moment, I understood there was nothing I could do," he told The Sunday Times through a translator. His father had sold his land to raise more than $9,000 to send him here to work. "I felt hopeless and afraid," he said. "I had sacrificed so much."
Mr Rasel, 32, is among a growing pool of foreign workers luredto Singapore by the promise of jobs which do not exist.
In the last five years, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has taken enforcement action against an average of 20 employers each year for such illegal importation of labour. It is currently investigating 23 employers for the offence.
Often, such employers would set up a shell company, in whose name they would apply online, with all the required papers, for foreign workers. But when they arrive, the workers are usually left on their own to find work or released to other companies who have reached their quota. Many are unaware they are breaking the law by working for an employer not stated on their permit.
MOMENT OF REALISATION
In that moment, I understood there was nothing I could do. I felt hopeless and afraid. I had sacrificed so much.
BANGLADESHI CONSTRUCTION WORKER RASEL J. M., on finding out that he could be, unwittingly, working illegally in Singapore.
In the latest case last month, company director Lim Kien Peng, 46, was jailed for two years and three months for bringing in 30 China nationals under MNF Investments and Holdings, a shell company he registered in 2008. Last July, MOM arrested 41 members of a syndicate that set up shell companies to bring in foreign workers for kickbacks. In 2014, it smashed three syndicates and arrested 19 people for setting up seven firms that brought in 500 workers for illegal employment.
Said an MOM spokesman: "We take a serious view of companies and individuals who commit such offences and will not hesitate to take strong action against them."
Offenders could be jailed for six months or more and fined up to $6,000 for each illegal worker. If convicted of six or more charges, they are liable for caning.
Foreign worker advocacy groups say the problem has worsened. Operations manager Luke Tan of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) said: "Such cases are on the rise, compared to five years ago." Home sees five to six cases every month.
Healthserve, a community clinic for foreign workers, dealt with 35 cases last year, and is now working on 10. Said its spokesman: "Most were caught with expired work permits which they say were cancelled without their knowledge."
Mr Tan said the employers, after collecting recruitment fees, would terminate the work passes after a few months, freeing them to bring in new workers. Foreigners who work without valid passes face a fine of up to $20,000 or up to two years in jail or both, unless MOM determines they were victims.
Metalworker Yang Wei Xin, 44, from China paid an agent $14,500 to find him work here. He found his pass had been cancelled during a raid on his dormitory last August. He stayed on for eight months in Singapore to help with investigations, during which time he could not work. He returned home last week with a $9,000 debt and in despair: "How do good men make a living here?"